Small Victories Make Collecting a Pleasure
Sometimes the connections in collections are obscure
By Bruce McKinney
Building a focused collection is always a matter of discipline and luck. It helps to know what you are looking for but it's impossible to know all the material that logically fits. I personally believe that only about 40% of older material is currently documented in ways that easily identify it as relevant to a collecting focus; in my case the Hudson Valley in New York State. It seems counter-intuitive that so much material would be undocumented but I'm certain this is the case. Because so much material has been well described and the reputations of many bibliographers so established, it is easy to overlook the difference between the world of books in the past and now. Today there is an emerging transparency about printed material. We are not only finding more versions of the same titles. We are also finding more titles. And we are uncovering the speeches, pamphlets, newspapers and magazines that often contained the seeds that later germinated in the books that have entered the canon of printed materials. This material is not less interesting or important. It has simply been very difficult to identify. It now looms on the horizon and AE's MatchMaker is currently the best tool for exploring this nether world.
Recently I wrote about a book I added to my Hudson Valley collection: "Memoirs of the Rev. John H. Livingston, D.D.S.T.P." that is in the AED and comes up in "Poughkeepsie" searches because the AED includes some of the records of Lathrop Harper, who in 1905 described it as "Memoirs (with account of his settlement in New York city, from September, 1770, to 1776, and Albany, Poughkeepsie, etc., to the close of the Revolutionary War), by Alex. Gunn." The copy I obtained from George S. MacManus of Bryn Mawr for $75, is in original boards and was printed by an obscure printer, William A. Mercein, in 1829. It is an interesting book that I will read one of these days. It's also one of the books that falls outside the documented 40% but is nevertheless visible because a dealer thoroughly described and the AED recorded it. In fact dealers and auction houses routinely document material that would otherwise be invisible and it's why it's important for those who are serious about printed materials to carefully follow these emerging information sources. Those who do see first hand the discovery and illumination of the dark side of the moon, a side that is and will remain for some time, larger than the illuminated portion.
Great tools aside sometimes a great find also requires some luck. Six months ago Mike Stillman, in reviewing a catalogue from western specialist Gene Baade, brought a Hudson Valley item to my attention. It's My Life East and West by William S. Hart, the silent firm star and movie director who it turns out was born in Newburgh, New York on December 6th, 1864 and soon after moved a thousand miles west to Illinois to live what would be, for most people, a full life [life expectancy was 49.2 in 1900] after which, at age 49, he upped and headed off to southern California, there to become a legendary silent movie star in which he appeared in 65 films. Later still he had a distinguished career as a director. Seemingly marginal, this is another of the books that falls outside the documented 40% and therefore isn't on anyone's screen as a Hudson Valley item. Give Mr. Baade credit for mentioning Newburgh. It got my attention.
Small Victories Make Collecting a Pleasure
An inscription from William S. Hart to W.C.Fields
This book is his autobiography. There was the one described in Mr. Baade's catalogue and another dozen copies on Abe including several signed by Hart.
So you are thinking "Okay, he was born in Newburgh." And you are probably thinking that next I'll decide to collect Lobster Newburg recipes. In Mr. Hart's account he starts the book and appears to finish off Newburgh in the first two sentences. "I was born in Newburgh, New York. My first recollection is of Oswego, Illinois." Oh well. In fact he returns and provides some interesting description of Newburgh and his early life there. It also turns out that his first appearance in vaudeville years later was in Newburgh with a troop preparing to play New York.
What makes this copy special though is that at the height of his career as a Hollywood director, he inscribed this copy of his autobiography to a fellow easterner who like him came to Hollywood late in life and stayed to make a lasting impression on America. I'm referring of course to William Claude Dukenfield whose screen name, if you look carefully can be devined: W. C. Fields.
Here is how the bookseller described it:
Hart, William S. (W. C. Fields)
MY LIFE EAST AND WEST
Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1929 1st ed. 8vo. Brown cloth. vii, 362 pp, color frontis by Charles M. Russell, 24 black and white plates. Very Good, text very clean, spine and small portion of front cover slightly faded. SIGNED AND INSCRIBED BY HART TO W. C. FIELDS: To my friend Bill Fields And I'm not "looking out of the window" nor is it any Ballyhoo! Horseshoe Ranch, Newhall, Calif. 1931 - William S. Bill Hart." The two were close friends, both their careers beginning on the boards before taking to the silver screen. Originally from the estate of W. C. Fields. An outstanding association copy."
Well I was interested. It was priced at $350, much higher than other copies but a fabulous association copy. Numerous calls and emails to the seller went unanswered and in time I forgot about it. This past week I ran across a note I had made in March and called one last time. This time the seller answered as we quickly agreed on a price of $267 including shipping.
Today I have this little piece of history. The Hudson Valley, Newburgh, silent films, Hollywood, famous men and a very nice hand-written inscription - all in one book. No, it doesn't show up on Hudson Valley or Newburgh lists but, when someone asks me why I collect, this is one of the first books I'll show them.